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Scramble to save pig’s bladder painting for Kenwood

Art enthusiasts believe painting in blocked sale should stay in UK

24 October, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

A PRECIOUS painting of two young boys blowing up a pig’s bladder is at the centre of a scramble to stop it from being sold abroad.

The 1768 work by celebrated artist Joseph Wright of Derby has been handed down the generations, hanging in a private home with its value only guessed at.

But experts believe it is a companion piece to a painting by Wright on permanent display at Kenwood House, where managers are leading a campaign to raise the funds to stop a private collector from completing the picture’s purchase following a recent auction.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has placed a temporary block on the sale, which allows British-based institutions three months to raise funds to keep important artworks in the country.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1768 pig bladder painting

This means Kenwood has until mid-January to raise £3.5 million needed to stop the sale and bring it the house next to Hampstead Heath, where it can be teamed with Wright’s painting of two girls playing with a kitten.

At the time, it was thought the kitten painting was a one-off and not part of a series, and has hung alone to be gazed at admiringly by visitors.

Wright, who died in 1797, earned a reputation for his works of candle-lit subjects.

At the time he painted, bladders were a common toy for children and were inflated like a balloon or filled with dried peas and shaken like a rattle.

Peter Barber, who lives in Highgate and is a member of the Arts Council-led reviewing committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest told the New Journal he believed Wright’s painting belonged at Kenwood, which is home to works by the likes of Reynolds, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Gainsborough.

The Wright painting which hangs in Kenwood

He said: “Someone at an auction house recognised it and experts say it must be a companion piece to the one in Kenwood.”

Originally owned by the ninth Earl of Exeter, the bladder painting was sold in auction in 1792, then owned for a time by the Earl of Warwick before entering a private collection sometime in the 19th century.

It remained there until recently, when it was sold at auction – and Whitehall stepped in.

Mr Barber said: “A lively debate on education and the nature of childhood raged in Western Europe throughout the 1760s. Its ambiguities are exemplified in this striking and exquisitely executed painting of two boys playing, apparently innocently. In a painting now in Kenwood House, which may have been intended as a pendant, Wright depicted two girls playing. I do hope the opportunity is taken to keep the boys in Britain.”

He added: “Wright’s work is in line with the character of the paintings bequeathed by Lord Iveagh to Kenwood in 1927. It would be an excellent addition to the collection and would enliven it even further.”

Arts minister Conservative MP Helen Whately said: “As one of the most important artists of the 18th century, it is of paramount importance that we keep the works of Wright in the UK. This painting offers us a chance to learn more about his way of working and I hope that a buyer can be found to save this masterpiece so it can be studied and put on public display.”

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